API security is a rapidly evolving area of cybersecurity that has become increasingly important in recent years. The process secures APIs from malicious actors and ensures that API-based systems are safe. Breaches can devastate businesses and individuals from unauthorized data access, causing system downtime.
The Current State of API Security
Although there have been significant advances over the years, many areas can still be improved. The most common API threat vectors include injection attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), command injection, remote code execution (RCE), server-side request forgery (SSRF), etc., all of which can potentially lead to data loss or system compromise. Other API threats include:
- Weak authentication methods and authorization protocols.
- Insecure API design patterns.
- Need for more logging and monitoring capabilities.
- Inadequate testing or patching processes around API endpoints.
As attackers become more knowledgeable about different APIs, they can exploit these weaknesses to gain access to sensitive information or execute malicious code on vulnerable systems.
To address this issue effectively, organizations need to invest in proper risk assessment practices to identify potential threats before they can result in any real damage. Additionally, organizations need to:
- Ensure continuous visibility of all APIs exposed to the Internet and third parties.
- Implement robust authentication protocols across their API network.
- Adopt secure development practices when designing new APIs.
- Deploy automated static analysis tools for detecting suspicious activity such as cross-site scripting or SQL injection.
- Maintain thorough logging capabilities.
- Ensure that all APIs are regularly tested against industry standards such as OWASP Top 10.
API security is essential for businesses to maintain their API systems' confidentiality, integrity, and availability. API breaches or attacks can compromise sensitive data, disrupt operations, damage customer trust and reputation, and incur costly financial losses.
Protecting APIs from malicious activity requires robust authentication measures, strong encryption protocols, regular patching of software vulnerabilities, and continual monitoring of API traffic.
When appropriately implemented, users have secure access to critical resources without compromising privacy or system performance. Additionally, this process allows companies to control who has access to their API resources - ensuring that only authenticated users are granted access privileges.
API Breaches in 2022
In January 2022, a large insurance company reported to the public that its API had been breached, leading to the release of 1.8 million user accounts' personal and confidential information. This API vulnerability was discovered as a BFLA exploit - 'Broken Function Level Authorization' - that allowed access to otherwise restricted parts of the API application.
Again, in January 2022, a popular digital scheduling platform was the victim of a security breach that exposed the personally identifiable information (PII) for 3.7 million user accounts. In this case, an API key with too broad of access rights to other parts of the application allowed malicious actors to access private data insecurely stored.
In mid-2022, a global social media platform reported a breach that had been taking place since late 2021. The vulnerability was related to a user-search API that unintentionally exposed the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of around 5.4 million accounts (although experts suspect the actual figure may be substantially higher).
It is known that some of this data was sold off to cybercriminals in darknet marketplaces. At the same time, other portions were allegedly released for free on the internet.
Once this PII had fallen into criminal hands, it could have been used to gain access to additional personal details or even financial information, which raised many questions surrounding security measures across all popular platforms.
In September 2022, an international Telecom company experienced a significant security breach, with an estimated 10 million user accounts being compromised. The attack was caused by an API insecurity in the form of BFLA, leading to the hackers demanding a $1 million ransom for their silence.
API breaches can have dire consequences for both companies and individuals. They can result in reputational damage due to the trust broken between customers and service providers. API vulnerabilities can also provide malicious actors with entry points into corporate networks and systems, making them vulnerable to further exploitation.
Common API Security Risks
Organizations should be aware of these common risks and take steps to mitigate them.
Insufficient authentication and authorization measures
To protect against these threats, organizations should employ robust authentication mechanisms such as multi-factor authentication or token-based access control. Additionally, API resources should be tightly controlled with appropriate authorization protocols to ensure that only authorized users can access them.
Lack of API monitoring
API endpoints are exposed to the public, leaving them vulnerable to malicious activity such as data tampering or API misuse. Organizations need to gain and maintain real-time visibility into all of their APIs. Then, API monitoring solutions can detect suspicious API activity and alert administrators when a breach occurs.
Data breaches due to API vulnerabilities can also occur if API keys are not tightly secured. API keys should be protected with encryption and stored in a secure location away from undesirable entities. Additionally, API owners should set up expiration policies for API keys to avoid unauthorized access to API resources. Alternately, API developers should look at using more secure, modern authentication methods that do not rely on long-term credentials.
Weak input validation
Developers must ensure that all inputs are correctly validated before using them in an API request. This includes checking for valid data types, field lengths, and prohibited characters before processing user requests.
Insecure API endpoints
APIs are exposed to the public, making them vulnerable to malicious attacks such as DDoS and API calls. Organizations should use secure API protocols such as TLS/SSL and API Gateways and other network layer controls from the cloud providers to protect API endpoints from unauthorized access. Additionally, API owners should employ stringent API testing practices for their APIs before deploying them in production environments.
In 2022, security risks continued to increase as API usage and complexity grew. API vulnerabilities such as broken authentication, injection flaws, and cross-site scripting (XSS) were among the most common risks seen throughout the year.
While API developers took steps to address these issues with secure coding techniques, API usage was so widespread that it took a lot of work to keep up with the growing number of threats. Additionally, malicious actors had become increasingly adept at finding new ways to exploit vulnerable APIs. As a result, risk frequency increased significantly in 2022 compared to previous years.
Are APIs a Security Risk?
One concern is that API keys and authentication credentials can be leaked or compromised, resulting in data breaches and other malicious activity. To protect against these threats, developers must adopt secure API protocols to ensure that API keys are encrypted and protected from interception and unauthorized access. Additionally, API providers must ensure that their services comply with privacy laws such as GDPR and HIPAA.
On the other hand, others believe it should not be considered a top priority since traditional data protection methods, such as encryption, can offer sufficient protection. For instance, if the API key is stored in an encrypted secret store, it is improbable that anyone will gain access without proper authorization. However, even when using traditional encryption methods, vulnerabilities still exist if they are not implemented correctly or updated regularly.
The API security landscape is becoming increasingly complex, and organizations recognize the need to take the process seriously. Solutions can include:
- Authentication systems to verify API requests.
- API analytics to monitor API operations for suspicious activities.
- API gateways and other network controls.
- Encryption measures to prevent data leakage.
- API keys or tokens to add an extra layer of authorization.
API security is an ever-evolving field that demands multiple layers of defense to protect against unauthorized access or data theft. It's an ongoing process, and organizations must remain vigilant to mitigate the latest threats.
Future trends and developments will likely focus on improving API authentication, authorization, data protection, and privacy measures.
Organizations must stay updated with the latest standards and best practices. Only then can they ensure that their APIs are secure from malicious actors and remain compliant with data protection regulations. Adopting these strategies now will ensure businesses keep abreast of developments as they occur.